Playboy Gary Hart was one of the greatest managers in the history of the wrestling business.

But he was more than just an on-screen manager. Much more.

Behind the scenes, Hart was a creative genius, known more for his incredible booking skills than his innate ability to make fans hate him inside a wrestling ring.

His new book, “Playboy Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling ... With a Little Help from My Friends,” is one you won’t want to put down. It’s one of the best pro wrestling autobiographies out there, and that covers a lot of ground.

Unfortunately Hart passed away shortly after completing the book, and is not around to reap the benefits of his critically acclaimed finished product. Fortunately for wrestling fans, though, he was around long enough to pour his heart and soul into a book that reveals as much about the wrestling business as it does Hart’s incredible journey in it.

What makes the 472-page epic so engaging is Hart’s amazing sense of recall. As sharp as Hart was delivering compelling interviews and concocting intriguing storylines, he was equally adept at chronicling four decades in the wrestling business with an insight that’s both refreshing and revealing.

“His mind was that sharp and lucid,” says Jason Williams, Hart’s eldest son. “As he would say, he had to remember how to book 50 guys in one place and time and remember where they’re all at. If you asked him something, he would just go on with it.”

The book, which was released earlier this year, is co-authored by Philip Varriale, a talented New York-based writer who also collaborated in previous autobiographies of managers J.J. Dillon and the late Lou Albano.

It was a great experience,” Varriale says. “He had a gift for storytelling, so between that and his incredible career it made for an amazing project. He also had a knack for passing along his vast knowledge in a unique and powerful way. I learned so much from him, as have, based on the feedback I have received, those who have read his book.”

Brutally honest, Hart leaves no stones unturned, offering his unvarnished opinions about the many colorful figures whose paths he crossed in the wrestling business.

Hart played a pivotal role in some of wrestling’s most famous angles, including the Dusty Rhodes babyface turn in Florida in 1974 when Hart managed the villainous Pak Song, and serving as booker for a classic Christmas night 1982 cage match in Dallas that involved Ric Flair, the Von Erichs and The Freebirds.

Hart was regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time, and for a span of nearly 30 years managed such hardcore heels as The Spoiler, Bruiser Brody, The Great Kabuki, The Great Muta, Terry Funk, One Man Gang and Abdullah The Butcher, as well as such tag teams as Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, The Missouri Mauler and Brute Bernard, and The Fabulous Kangaroos (Al Costello and Karl Von Brauner).

He will be remembered as one of the greatest wrestling minds in the history of the business.

Playboy Gary Hart

Hart, born Gary Richard Williams, was a fascinating character in a fascinating business. His Playboy Gary Hart persona, that of a spoiled son of a mother with money, was the inspiration for the gimmick Jim Cornette successfully employed more than a decade later. But it was a far cry from Hart’s inner-city upbringing on the south side of Chicago, where he learned to fend for himself at an early age and got involved in a pair of businesses that both had to be protected — pro wrestling and organized crime.

It didn’t take long for a street-savvy kid like Hart to wisely ascertain that there wasn’t a future working as a collections man for the wiseguy gang, and that a career in the wrestling business just might be something he could hang his hat on.

Hart began his career in 1960 as a wrestler based out of Chicago, but later turned to a more successful role as a cocky, nefarious, well-dressed manager who would do most of the talking for his heel charges. His journey from wrestler to manager to booker is meticulously detailed in the book, and his unique vantage point offers readers a ringside view of the backstage mechanics of old-school wrestling.

Hart’s impact on the wrestling business was far-reaching. As a booker, he helped transform the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling into one of the most popular and successful wrestling companies of that period. He also served as matchmaker in other territories, and was Jim Crockett’s booker-in-charge of the inaugural Starrcade in Greensboro, N.C., in which Ric Flair won the NWA world title from Harley Race.

He worked with good promoters and bad promoters, and Hart goes into sharp, no-holds-barred detail when discussing the many power brokers he dealt with over the years.

Hart had a special, but complicated, relationship with Fritz Von Erich (Jack Adkisson) during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when Hart managed some of the top heels in Von Erich’s Texas territory, and for the following two decades when he served as Von Erich’s go-to guy in the front office and did most of the heavy lifting.

If you worked as closely as Hart did in the World Class office, however, an inordinate amount of tragedy came with the territory. He was there when several of the Von Erich children, all of whom called him “Uncle Gary,” succumbed to tragic, sometimes needless, deaths. He saw Gino Hernandez, whom he considered a son, die from an apparent cocaine overdose at the age of 28. He witnessed close friend Chris Adams’ life spiral out of control until he was fatally shot in the chest during a drunken brawl with a friend.

Hart often found himself at odds with family patriarch Fritz Von Erich over how to run the territory, and attributed denial to the Von Erich family problems. Von Erich refused to recognize that his family’s drug problems led to his sons’ demise.

“Nobody truly understands what took place in World Class during those times,” Hart writes in his book. “There was a covering up of everything, and denial, not drugs, was the biggest addiction. A lot of people have it and don’t look at it as an addiction, but I do.”

It was the same type of denial, he wrote, that he later would see in today’s business.

“To hear anyone say that there is no steroid problem in wrestling is like listening to someone rave about the emperor’s new clothes when the emperor is standing there naked. It’s totally and absolutely ridiculous, and the wrestlers of this generation are protecting steroids with the same fervor that the wrestlers of my generation protected kayfabe. But unlike kayfabe, if this sort of head-in-the-sand, denying-the-obvious attitude continues, it will destroy wrestling. It truly has the potential to cause irreparable harm.”

Tragedy in Tampa

One of the most compelling parts of the book was Hart’s story of the tragic plane crash in 1975 near Tampa that claimed the life of Bobby Shane (Robert Schoenberger)— at the time one of the sport’s rising superstars — and seriously injured Hart, Buddy Colt (Ron Reed) and Mike McCord (later known as Austin Idol).

The late-night crash of the private plane into the pitch-black water of Hillsborough Bay, just off the runway, knocked out all of Hart’s teeth, put a hundred stitches in his head, took away his sight in his right eye and left him with a broken back, left leg, left wrist and left arm. It fractured his sternum, his clavicle and vertebrae in his back.

Hart survived, and in the process helped save the lives of Colt and McCord. But it was too late for Shane, whose body was found when the plane was brought to the surface a few hours later. His seat belt was still on, and his leg was pinned under his seat.

Hart agonized for years over his colleague’s death. He had switched seats with Shane to have more legroom. Even though Hart unlatched his seat belt, which he attributed to his survival, he always wondered what might have happened had things been different. A coroner’s report later showed that Shane died on impact, and nothing Hart could have done would have saved him.

“Dealing with Bobby’s death was harder than the crash and the swim to shore. It was overwhelming,” wrote Hart.

He also wondered just how far Shane, dubbed the “Boy Wonder” in his teenage years, might have gone in the business.

“Even though he was 29 years old and had been in the business for only 11 years, he’d made quite a name for himself and has left behind a great legacy. His untimely death is all the more tragic because he had such a tremendous career in front of him, given the fact that he had just gotten his very first booking job in the States.”

Varriale says Hart’s candor and honesty shine through each page of the book.

“He dug very deep in some pretty dark places to share his experiences, particularly when it came to his feelings regarding the deaths of Bobby Shane, Gino Hernandez and the Von Erich boys. There is no point in the book where he whitewashes something or leaves the reader rolling their eyes or wanting more depth.”

Father and sons

Jason Williams, 32, and his brother Chad, 30, had a close relationship with their father despite the fact that Hart was on the road much of the time they were growing up.

But Hart, who lacked a father figure in his own life, also walked away from his wrestling career to help raise his sons, and they realized the sacrifices he made to provide a good living in a tough profession.

“He was a main-event manager and a successful booker, yet we always came first. And we always knew it,” say his sons.

Being the sons of one of the most hated men in the profession, one who was known across the country and who spread his make-believe venom each and every week on TV screens and at the arenas, was a tough proposition for youngsters who only knew their dad as a loving, caring and supportive parent.

“I realized it was kind of different, and I always knew my dad was doing something cooler than what other guys were doing,” says Jason, now a sports radio broadcaster in the Dallas market. “It was kind of normal for me, but it was kind of odd for me when I was a kid. If I would get in a scrape with some kid at the video arcade on Sunday morning because of something they saw Dad doing on Saturday night TV, I was either throwing with a kid who either said he didn’t think wrestling was real, or throwing with a kid who believed it too much. So the grass was sort of evenly spread for me there.”

That didn’t mean, however, Hart wasn’t involved in his sons’ lives. He was, but he often had to do it from a distance.

“Dad wasn’t a hardcore disciplinarian. There were rules, but you knew how far you could go. He was a very loving and supporting father. But he wouldn’t support you in any direction in which he knew you had no future. When I started trying to play guitar at the age of 16, he was supportive up until a point. But by the time I was 19, I knew that I couldn’t play because he told me.”

Williams chuckles when recalling how his dad handled that particular situation.

“Shut it down, you can’t even tune it, don’t throw your life away,” Hart told his son. “Your thing is that you’ve got hair. My God, I’m so proud of that.’

“Well, you’re just jealous you don’t have any more,” said Jason.

“I gave mine to you,” his dad retorted.

Outlaw buddies

It’s not easy surviving in a cutthroat profession like the wrestling business, and Hart rarely played favorites.

But he always seemed to lean toward those in the business who demanded their fair share from less-than-scrupulous promoters and weren’t afraid to speak their mind. “Outlaws” like Bruiser Brody, Don “The Spoiler” Jardine, Mark Lewin and Abdullah The Butcher.

“I think it’s more an issue of why they were attracted to him,” says co-author Varriale. “When it came to guys like Brody and Jardine, many bookers were leery of using them on top long-term in fear of somehow getting burned or held up for more money down the road. Due to negative experiences he had with certain promoters early in his career, Gary made sure that when he reached a powerful position within the NWA, he would never take advantage of the wrestlers. He specifically had empathy for wrestlers who were innately untrusting of ‘the office’ and was therefore able to connect with them on a level other bookers of his era were not able to. There was a very real and unbroken trust factor they had with him that they had with no one else.”

“Dad only judged people on the basis of how they treated him,” says Jason Williams. “If they were nice to him, then he just figured that was the way they were. Dad couldn’t just hang out with somebody he didn’t have a legitimate like for. If he didn’t like you, he couldn’t pretend to. For some reason he and Uncle Donald (Jardine) just really clicked and were very, very tight and when he passed away, it was like his actual brother passed away. And Brody the same way. Dad was very genuine. He couldn’t be something he wasn’t.”

Hart is brutally honest in the book and took colleagues to task when he felt it was warranted. He admittedly was a “my way or the highway type guy,” but he always stood up for his talent.

He walked away from the WWF in 1984 and WCW in 1990, maintaining he had too much respect for himself to allow others to degrade him. Unlike many others in the business, Hart just couldn’t look the other way, and had no regrets on the way out.

“I had a long career, I always made money and I left on my own terms. And that’s important to me. I’m quite happy with the choices I made, and I have no regrets,” he said.

“Gary was always a stand-up guy,” said former Mid-South Wrestling owner Cowboy Bill Watts. “He would always tell you exactly what he thought. He wouldn’t back down from anybody.”

One of the characters Hart didn’t like was former WCW boss Jim Herd. He ended up leaving the company because of it. Leaving behind a high-paying job in Atlanta ultimately led to the collapse of his marriage.

“She helped spend a lot of that money he left behind,” Jason Williams says of the split. “We got in a U-Haul to come back to Dallas from Atlanta in February of 1990. They had their first break-up in July of ‘92. They got back together for a while, had another break-up in March of ‘93, got back together in September of ‘93 and stayed together until the end of ‘99.”

“Too many things were said to ever make it feel like yesterday,” says Williams, quoting a song by Mötley Crüe.

The wrestling business had changed, Hart was getting older and he began questioning some of his priorities.

“Everything around him had changed,” says Williams. “He was never home. He was making money, but it was getting spent. My brother and I were getting older. He wondered why he was going to continue to do that. I understood it. I looked at it pretty much the way he did. But my mom couldn’t understand that.”

Final chapter

In recent years Hart had begun attending fan conventions and other related nostalgia gatherings, and had provided a major voice in DVDs about the World Class years.

He died on March 16, 2008, following a heart attack at his home in Euless, Texas, after returning from an autograph session in Pennsylvania. He was only 66.

Jason Williams says his father had shown no signs of being ill.

“He looked to be fine. It was unexpected. He had been slowing down a little bit, but he was himself up until the end. There was no visible change. He didn’t have dementia. He was razor-sharp all the time.”

Williams and his brother had picked their dad up from the airport and dropped him off at his house.

“That night when I picked him up — I believe he had made a grand — he put it in the coffee canister,” recalls Jason Williams.

“Boys, I’m putting this money in this canister in case I die,” he ominously told his sons.

“Chad told Dad not to say that, but he assured us he was fine,” says Jason. “I guess the way to look at it is that I got Dad’s last payoff, and he pulled a rib.”

Williams had talked to his dad an hour and a half before he died the next day. He was going to go by his house for dinner like he normally did before he went to work, and they had planned to watch a Lakers-Rockets NBA game.

“He was fine. I only live about two miles from his place. As soon as I opened up the door, I saw him, and said, ‘Dad.’ I said ‘Dad’ twice, and he didn’t say anything. He went just before I got there. Maybe that’s why I’ve dealt with it so well. Even though it was just a split second, he knew I was there. And that’s mine forever. He knew I was there.”

Lasting legacy

Jason Williams, says his dad would have been proud of the book.

“I knew I was going to like it, but it turned out better than even I had expected. And I know it turned out better than even my old man thought it was going to turn out,” he says.

“Up until this, I thought that Mötley Crüe’s ‘The Dirt’ was the best book I had ever read. But this was right up there with that. That’s the best possible compliment I could give it.”

Gary Hart touched the lives of many performers in the industry. He was a great manager and a great booker, but perhaps his most important contribution was as a finder and developer of talent, helping many wrestlers attain levels of greatness through his own managerial, microphone and mentoring skills.

He may have never worked for Vince McMahon, says Varriale, but he was able to tap into those skills, and wrestling fans are better for it.

“He told me time and time again his favorite thing in the world was to find a young wrestler and help mold him into what he knew he could be,” says Varriale. “Passing along psychology and insight. The NWA territories allowed him that opportunity, and Vince would not have.”

Varriale adds that Hart would have been well-suited in today’s wrestling landscape as a ring agent or producer working with young wrestlers.

“Gary would have really excelled in a role like that. He had so much to offer and loved to serve as a mentor … not just stand there as a mouthpiece.”

No one will ever know how Hart might have fared working in New York, but Varriale doubts that it will affect his legacy in the wrestling business.

“By managing and booking in NWA territories during his career, Gary was given the freedom to choose the wrestlers he wanted to manage and develop — most of them becoming main-event stars in the industry — and he was also allowed the creativity to execute some of the most well thought-out and best-remembered angles of all time. That freedom quite frankly would not have been afforded to him in the WWF, and the industry as a whole would be lesser for it.”

Hart, who described himself as “a kid from Chicago who worked very hard to make it in wrestling,” will be remembered as someone who provided many memorable moments for a generation of fans, and who made “old-school” wrestling a treasured memory in the minds of those who still hold it dear.

Even WWE acknowledged his contributions to the business in a note on the company’s Web site.

“Gary Hart will live on in the hearts and minds of his friends, family, and fans and colleagues.”

“Playboy Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling ... With a Little Help from My Friends” has a cover price of $30. It is published by GEAN Publishing and can be purchased at www.playboygaryhart.net.

Old School Championship Wrestling will present a show tonight at Omar Shrine Auditorium, 176 Patriots Point Blvd., Mount Pleasant, featuring Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Malachi against Calie Casanova and Hans Bumgartner. Bell time is 6 p.m.

Adult admission $10; kids 12 and under $5. For more information, call 743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.

Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling will hold a fundraiser for the Summerville Police Department with a star-studded show Dec. 12 at the Summerville High School gym. The event will feature such names as Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, Buff Bagwell, The Midnight Express and The Rock ‘N Roll Express.

Doors open at 6 p.m. Bell time is at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 front row, $20 ringside and $12 general admission.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at mooneyham@postandcourier.com.